By Gabriella Martin • August 10, 2016•Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
I recently had the opportunity to interview Judge Erin Wirth, the first female Administrative Law Judge appointed to the Richmond, Virginia Social Security Hearing office and the first female in a decade elected as President of the Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference. Since graduating from law school—a childhood dream—Judge Wirth has lived in seven jurisdictions, held eleven jobs, and passed the bar exam in three states. This may seem unusual, but when you consider Judge Wirth’s other role as wife of a Coast Guardsman, those numbers recontextualize as a testament to her commitment to her family and her country.
During our interview, I learned many of the lessons Judge Wirth has herself learned over the years and received some unique advice from a woman who is anything but ordinary. A theme of the conference she recently assisted with, The International Association of Women Judges Biennial Conference, was to foster the creation of action plans and promote the lively exchange of ideas among judges from all walks of life. Appropriately titled “Women Judges and the Rule of Law: Assessing the Past and Anticipating the Future”; my conversation with Judge Wirth embodied this theme as she shared wisdom she had learned and what she sees for future female jurists.
Here are the top 5 things I learned from our conversation.
- Be flexible, positive, honest, and work hard. This sentiment is her advice not just to military wives pursuing legal careers, but to all young lawyers. Throughout her legal career, she has “pursued a wide variety of positions and selected the option that would develop [her] skills and best fit [her] family.” Flexibility also entails rolling with the punches so to speak, without necessarily honing in on one particular dream job or a traditional career path. However, flexibility only works with a good amount of positivity and honesty. As Judge Wirth says “my job applications told my story by pulling together my wide variety of experience, showing how the skills I developed made me an effective advocate, and demonstrating that I would be a valuable addition.” She believes a good reputation starts with candor which means addressing potential issues from the very beginning, for her it was usually how long she expected to stay in an area. And of course, nothing is accomplished without hard work, which for Judge Wirth means knowing your goals, being organized and staying on top of your progress.
- To create a better work life balance, know your priorities. A lesson underscored by Judge Wirth’s belief that marriage is a team sport is the need to come up with a game plan. She says she and her husband have “both made adjustments in our career paths to accommodate the other’s career.” As a team, they have both helped each other along the way and now know the other’s professions from stem to stern. When it comes to the family and work life balance, everything is about making the best decision possible given the available options and knowing that you did the best you could.
- Women should consider a wide range of career options, and celebrate their non-traditional paths. One of the most enjoyable parts of my conversation with Judge Wirth was her focus and celebration of the non-traditional law student and lawyer. These stories often go unnoticed or unspoken, but Judge Wirth sees skills, positive attributes, and most importantly experience in these non-traditional paths. These paths include taking time off to care for families, pursuing other interests, or being unable to find work after moving to a new area. She is especially impressed with the creative ways many military spouses pursue their legal career goals. She encourages the military spouse attorneys who she mentors through eMentor to think about different ways to work in the legal field and the many paths to becoming a Judge.
- Networking is important, but so is experience. Contrary to traditional advice that many law students are given, Judge Wirth believes experience trumps networking in some instances. Throughout the course of her family’s seven transfers, she has succeeded in part due to strong letters of recommendation, leadership positions, and numerous publications. Moving so frequently has often left her in the position of being the new attorney in town and as such her professional networks have helped her not in who she’s met, but rather what she has learned over the course of her career.
- Use technology to help you make connections, learn, and explore career paths. “There have been tremendous technological advancements since I started practicing law,” she says. And Judge Wirth described a number of instances where technology has played a crucial role in her legal journey. While pulling double duty going through both the extensive and lengthy examination process to become a federal Administrative Law Judge and facing yet another state bar exam, Judge Wirth wrote a letter to the editor of the ABA Journal proposing that military spouse attorneys be admitted to the bar without examination while in the state due to a spouse’s military orders. A few years later, she met another military spouse lawyer online and created the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN) with a website, Facebook group, and emailed press release. With technology, you can find a network or make your own.
Judge Wirth would like us to mention that her comments are her own and do not reflect the position of her employer. We thank her for taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions.
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